Civil Rights

Universities are battlegrounds, Berkeley faculty forgot how to fight


The People’s Republic of Berkeley, with its capital at UC Berkeley, was once ground zero in the battle to save the soul of free speech in America. That was over one-half century ago. But today, some view UC Berkeley as a bastion of reactionary political correctness.

Recently, Ann Coulter, the enfant terrible of the conservative movement, “canceled” her speaking engagement at UC Berkeley, bewailing free speech had been “crushed by thugs.”  She inveighed against the university for its namby-pamby vacillation. She also blasted her conservative student sponsors for ditching her and “joining the other team.” Some prominent liberals voiced support for Coulter.

{mosads}Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks explained Coulter was never persona non grata on campus but “our police force does not believe (the event) venue to be protectable,” adding “a speaker’s presence on campus” in February “ignited violent conflict and significant damage to campus property.” He fingered unnamed “groups and individuals from the extreme ends of the political spectrum” for the controversy. He hectored, “This is a university, not a battlefield.”


In 1964, Mario Savio, Jack Weinberg and others defiantly mobilized Berkeley students in the cause of campus activism, free speech and academic freedom. They were joined by a thousand strong faculty, making Berkeley a national symbol of campus free speech and protest. By contrast, the stony silence of Berkeley’s faculty majority in 2017 is deafening. In addition to stopping Coulter’s speech, the vocal minority who is speaking up also demanded conservative gadfly Milo Yiannopoulos be banned from campus in January. In the case of Yiannopoulos, the opposition became violent.

Free speech is clearly in the crosshairs, not only from the ivory towers but also from the White House. Trump is still working to fulfill his pledge of building a casino on the ashes of free speech by “opening up our libel laws so we can sue” the press and “win lots of money.” I wonder if he reviewed the scrapped Sedition Act of 1798.

Dirks’ battle cry that his university is not a “battlefield” disingenuously suggests universities are mere sanctuaries of unperturbed learning far from the madding crowd of exasperating extremists. He cravenly flees his university’s storied past as the battleground for free speech and the anti-war movement by indicting   shadowy “extremists.” In the ivory tower battlefield, “every idea is an incitement” and “eloquence often sets fire to reason.” Dirks forgets that as he points an accusatory finger at “extremists,” three fingers are pointing at him.

Dirks hides behind a contrived Hobson’s choice of security or liberty. The greatest danger to liberty comes not only from the zealots who set fire to reason but also from the craven government firefighters who prefer to stand back and indifferently watch the fire burn itself out.

Censorship is not a panacea for offensive speech. Its practice testifies to a closed mind, lack of self-confidence and a deep-seated fear of being challenged. The only effective way to fight extremist views is with moderate ones steeped in reasoned elaboration.

Universities should be battlefields of ideas where open-minded students, armed with reason and facts can joust and prepare themselves for the real world of offensive, outrageous and distasteful ideas. Suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous ideas is but a small price to pay for living in a free society.  

The founders of the American republic understood the supreme value of free expression and wholly rejected censorship proclaiming in sweeping language for the ages, “Congress Shall Make No Law … Abridging the Freedom of Speech” because “they put their faith, for better or for worse, in the enlightened choice of the people.” They sought to ensure “coarse expression as well as refined, and vulgarity no less than elegance” are equally protected.  

Their vision today is writ large for all humanity in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which proclaims, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Neither Berkeley’s administration nor its faculty can avoid responsibility for the sad state of campus free speech. They have not done enough to promote civic education and cultivate a civic culture of robust exchange of ideas. The Berkeley administration sees its role as a mediator of extreme views. The faculty generally appears unconcerned and uninterested in promoting the clash of ideas on campus.   

The poverty of today’s civic education and civic culture is an endemic feature of American higher education. It is part of the general decline in robust liberal education. We do a poor job of equipping students with a broad knowledge of American history, the American Constitution, and our cherished civil liberties and rights.  I join Chief Justice John Roberts in his May 1 (Law Day) call for all “to work together to advance public education about the constitutional values that define and shape our great nation.”

Defending free speech comes at a high personal price. In 2010, in the face of biting criticism and public condemnation, I defended the right of a dictator, under whose leadership Ethiopia became the “fourth most censored” country in the world, to speak freely at Columbia University.  

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, I defended the right of bête noire Tom Metzger to come to my campus and spew his odious message of white supremacy. The Southern Poverty Law Center won a $12.5 million judgment against Metzger for the murder of Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian college student in Oregon. I try to live out Noam Chomsky’s maxim: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

Perhaps the best defense of free speech comes from the man who was responsible for “Bloody Thursday” at Berkeley on May 15, 1969. “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. It must be fought for, protected, … or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

Alemayehu (Al) Mariam is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino and a constitutional lawyer.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Activism Ann Coulter Berkeley, California California Counterculture of the 1960s first amendment free speech Free speech activists Free Speech Movement Freedom of speech Milo Yiannopoulos Politics
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